NEW YORK — When it starts previews Jan. 27, Steven Fales’ “Confessions of a Mormon Boy” will be tasked not only with drawing crowds, but also with bettering the rep of the very building where it’s playing.
The one-man show — a 2004 New York Intl. Fringe Festival hit about Fales’ fall from Mormon grace into the world of gay prostitution — will bow at the SoHo Playhouse, a theater with a legacy of housing quality American legit. Recently, though, it has become the venue for less, um, award-worthy fare like the play “Orgasms.”
Darren Lee Cole, the Playhouse’s new executive director, ardently wants to restore the theater to its former glory. A longtime producer, Cole first encountered the space — which operates as a rental house and not a nonprofit — when he arrived in 1998 to mount Tracy Letts’ dark comedy “Killer Joe.” At the time, the Playhouse had just completed a four-year run of “Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral,” an interactive comedy that branded the theater as a bastion for cash cows.
That middlebrow status is miles from the building’s roots. It started out as a Prohibition-era speakeasy called the Huron Club, regularly visited by the members of Tammany Hall. In the 1960s, it was renamed Village South and hosted Edward Albee’s Playwrights Unit Workshop, which mounted early works from Sam Shepard, LeRoi Jones, Lanford Wilson and Terrence McNally.
To Cole’s mind, the 200-seat Playhouse is well suited for the challenging work of such iconoclastic scribes. “You can afford to do riskier material here and not feel like you have to sell hundreds of tickets to make a go of it,” he says.
So with that dream of risk, Cole and his partner, Faith Mulvihill, took over the space in early 2004. Major renovations followed, including the opening of a cabaret space above the theater. Nostalgically dubbed the Huron Club, the cabaret currently features the gritty Tom Waits musical “Belly of a Drunken Piano.”
All that plus “Mormon Boy” — which Cole praises as a sophisticated work that tells “a real human story” — and the SoHo Playhouse is primed to become a venerated destination for great indie theater, right?
Well, it may not be that easy. Even though a small theater doesn’t have to match Broadway box office, it’s tough to keep a building afloat when you’re trying to pay rent with the profits generated by gay Mormons and the Tom Waits songbook.
Cole is acutely aware that his role at the Playhouse requires balancing his aesthetic ambitions with a bottom line. And he understands why previous directors were so happy to keep burying “Grandma Sylvia.”
Discussing the theater’s recent past, Cole concedes, “There was more of a raw commercialism (then) that I don’t necessarily have, but I don’t want to pooh-pooh that, because survivalism is a game you have to play.”
And survival is what prompted Cole to produce “Orgasms,” a show that may not walk in Albee’s footsteps but nevertheless had a healthy eight-month run in 2005.
In an attempt to blend sheer profitability with artistic goals, Cole put “Orgasms” on hold in August so he could open the Playhouse to the New York Fringe. Among the shows he hosted were off-kilter projects like “Fucking Ibsen Takes Time” and the proudly lowbrow sex farce “Fluffy Bunnies in a Field of Daisies.”
And it was “Fluffy Bunnies” that sold the most tickets. Which may indicate that even while he’s striving to push the SoHo Playhouse back into high literary echelons, Cole will have to honor the theater’s less glamorous history for at least a little while longer.